Can’t exhale if I don’t inhale
By Cara Strauss Contreras
It was getting married that wrecked my fragile ignorance.
In general I had obeyed God without much resistance. Following God’s call to Bolivia. Trying to shape my life into sincere ministry among the poor. Obeying the hard command to stay with people in their pain and suffering instead of escaping. Of course, obeying day to day had the typical struggles that trip up most people. But I felt like I had all the major areas covered. Checked off.
Too often I treat obedience like that. Like “checking off” all the major commands on my list, and chipping away at the “tiny” sins that slip through the cracks every day. Obeying as doing or avoiding.
But not until this year, when I got married, had I ever understood obedience as resting.
After the explosion of wrapping paper had settled, the bouquet had gotten moldy, and we both dragged ourselves back to work, I realized that I craved being with my husband on our day off. Our short evenings usually were just enough for dinner and dishes, and weekends were packed with one “godly” ministry activity after another. Only Thursdays, which we had both designated our Sabbath, could we look each other in the eyes in awe of spending an entire day together in rest.
Realizing how much I craved a day of rest with my husband opened my understanding to my deeper, hungrier yearning for a Sabbath with my God. This is a backwards route to discovery, of course. My craving for God should inform my other relationships, not the other way around. But the transient, earthy relationship of marriage is teaching me a little more about my eternal relationship with my God.
My yearning for intimacy with God was, of course, indicative of another instance of backwards logic in my life. Obedience should be the natural breath of intimacy. Intimacy as inhalation, obedience as exhalation. Intimacy must come first, to fill us, before we can breate out our obedience into the world. But in my life, I was treating obedience, not as the natural release that springs from intimacy, but as a breathless, lifeless duty. No wonder I was slowly asphyxiating.
Because up to that point, I’d assumed that the more I did in ministry, the more I was obeying God. Who would have thought that the more I did, the more I could be disobeying? Disobeying the fourth commandment, perhaps, because I wouldn’t admit that I couldn’t do it all. Shunning God’s gift of rest one day a week, trusting that things wouldn’t fall apart even if I didn’t answer all my emails and didn’t jump up to patch up every misunderstanding and ministry trip-up.
Why is it so hard to obey when God asks me to pause ministry for God, in order to start communing with God?
After all, Sabbath was not simply modeled by God after the creation. It is actually his gift to us. “The Sabbath is the most precious present [human]kind has received from the treasure house of God,” the ancient Jewish rabbis said of Sabbath.1
For those who here cry heresy, claiming that salvation through Christ is clearly the greatest gift we have received, consider the new covenant implications of Sabbath. The author of Hebrews uses Sabbath as the perfect metaphor for the rest we will receive through our salvation in the coming Kingdom (Hebrews 4). My dad calls it the Salvation-Sabbath Package.
But Sabbath is definitely not only for the future. It is a defiant denial of the very gospel message to stubbornly shun Sabbath rest here and now. The gospel thunders that God has saved us in our weakness, our sin and our pride. Ignoring the need for sane rhythms of work and rest is dangerously close to claiming that we are like God in omnipotence; that we do not need God to replenish us. “I am not God,” Ruth Haley Barton writes. “God is the only One who can be all things to all people. God is the One who can be two places at once. God is the One who never sleeps. I am not.”2
I have so embraced my own infiniteness lately, that these days I also have little patience for people who excuse themselves neatly from Sabbath. Once my husband was talking to a fellow pastor about Sabbath, and the pastor proudly demurred, “Well of course we preach Sabbath to our congregations. But we teach it as an ideal that, as people in ministry, we’ll never be able to achieve on this earth. Sabbath is an ideal for heaven.” With all due respect, that is balderdash.
Jesus clearly taught that Sabbath is about what gives life: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath; to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). But if I’m draining myself with “godly” ministry on a day when I should be resting in God, I’m actually destroying my own life and most likely not gifting others much life either.
Even the exceptions can foster intimacy. Whenever I am dragged away from my sweet, sweet Sabbath to a medical emergency, a crying friend, or an unavoidable ministry meeting, I hear Christ’s conciliatory whisper, “We’ll continue this conversation later.” And we do.
Sabbath has become for me a very easy obedience. On this lovely day, I can simply be what I am, “a creature in the presence of my Creator.”3 I can shun all false guilt, knowing that this is exactly where God wants me to be. It’s a day to fall in love all over again.
1 Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.135.
2 Ibid, p. 138.
3 Ibid, p. 138.
Cara Strauss Contreras spends her Sabbaths eating chocolate chip pancakes in bed, reading the Narnia Chronicles with her sweet husband, and leaving the dust bunny army to plan their revolt.